Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Smile America! You Love Art!

"Nobody cares about art. No one really cares."

My friend Peter spoke these words aloud, and they hung there in the air with the weight of a comfortable reclining chair. He stared out his studio window, waiting for me to repeat his mantra. Before I could speak, he churned out another sorrowful statement, punctuated with a heavy sigh. "It just seems that nobody is interested in art anymore."

Of course, only an artist would ever say these words. In times of despair, they have come from my lips as well. But no longer. Why? Because they are so far from truth that it is almost hysterical. Maybe smack in the middle of the last decade a comment like that would have garnered a conquering chorus of grumbling hallelujahs, but not in today's America. Today's American citizen is absolutely in love with art.

With this in mind I broke the disparaging mood in the room by asking my defeated artist friend, "What was the number one movie in the land last week, and the number one best-selling book last year? I'll tell you: the frickin' Da Vinci Code. The story takes place in the Louvre Museum and is all about looking at art. And did you hear? Yesterday the highest amount ever paid for a painting was set in auction: 135 million dollars for a Gustav Klimt painting, beating out Picasso's chincey 106 million dollar price from two years ago! The Klimt is going to the Neues Museum in Manhattan, where hundreds of thousands of people will make their way to see it! And believe me, admission ain't gonna be free! They will all gladly shell out big bucks to get in, and then they will slap down the plastic at the souvenir counter to buy Klimt posters, Klimt refridgerator magnets, and Klimt oven mits"

My painter friend just stared.

"And another thing," I resumed, climbing up to stand on a table, "The number one shows on television today are about people... real people...involved in the art of singing and ballroom dancing! America loves this art thing! America is done with car-chase shows and folks eating tarantula intestines and caterpillar smoothies on a dare. They actually want to see somebody get better at their craft, even if it means risking getting humiliated. They want to see somebody just like them take a stand and become a singing star or a tango hero! Whatd'ya mean nobody cares about art!?"

I stood panting with sweat beads dripping from my forehead. My chest heaved passionately as I awaited a response.

"Mere circuses and cakes," Peter retorted, dismissing me with a wave of his paint-covered hand. "You call junk-culture art? You call inflated commerce an indication of our nation's taste? Our nation has taste all right, but it's in its mouth, and that's about it."

"Ah jeez!" I countered. "Step down from the ivory tower, your majesty. This junk-culture as you call it serves as a kind of, you know, gateway-drug. It's like an appetizer before you can swallow the main course. It's like stretching before you run a marathon. The world has to develop a taste for art before they are ready to feast on it."

Peter ignored me. " What about our government? Why is the American government willing to spend billions on the military to fight our current economic-religious war in the middle East while diminishing all arts funding at home? Our schools rarely embrace the arts, and less and less government funds are put towards this universal language of peace and expression. I mean my God, even someone as wicked as Hitler supported the arts. During World War Two even he considered the arts vital. If the "ultimate evil guy" supported the arts, why can't our "good guys" in Washington do the same, but with grace and wisdom?"

"Now you've done it!" I taunted. "Whenever people bring up Hitler in an argument, you know that they are becoming cranky. Good Lord, are you saying that Hitler was a moral keeper of culture? Please be open to good news! Just tone down your pessimism and release your demands that the whole garden bloom at once." I grew sage-like as my heart glowed with hope. I continued with my hand gently and firmly on his shoulder. "Allow a few flowers to blossom before the others. Allow a beginning to take shape. Think of it as a start. Our culture is letting art into daily life like never before. Be positive. Be open to the possibilities. people do care."

My friend looked quietly down at the floor. After a few moments he spoke. "I guess you may be right. Maybe people are thinking about art more. Maybe they will develop a real thirst for it. Maybe this is the beginning, when our culture begins to grow. Maybe art will join every aspect of life, enriching it and leading to a future of harmony, poetry and beauty."
He paused. "I...still don't have to consider McDonald's new breakfast croissandwich as Haute cuisine though, do I?"

I smiled. We hugged.